The War on Salim and the Problem with Thailand’s Emerging Cancel Culture

On August 24th, the Manager newspaper published a political cartoon depicting Mao Zedong and Thanathorn Juangroongureangkit side by side. In front of Mao are the red guards, holding Little Red Books; in front of Thanathorn are today’s anti-government protestors, three fingers in the air.

It was not an accurate depiction. Today’s protestors are not taking their orders from an authoritarian regime, for one — quite the opposite. The cultural revolution’s chaotic, and indeed bloody, scenes have not and in all likelihood will not be repeated. 

But the cartoon is indicative of how some conservatives are feeling, for to them these times are disorienting. A few weeks ago, a protest at Thammasat issued a historic list of ten demands on reform of the monarchy. The education minister was recently subjected to a humiliating debate with students on the state of Thai schools. Explosive hashtags trend regularly. Old norms, long ingrained, are being overturned at breathtaking speed. 

So if conservatives feel a sense of some sort of cultural revolution occurring, perhaps they could be forgiven. Indeed, the most telling part of the cartoon was the depiction of a struggle session occurring in front of the protestors, the victims of whom were two elderly men holding ‘salim’ signs. They don’t fear a cultural revolution. Instead, they fear and resent this new war on salim.

Cancelling salim 

Years before, when Twitter was more politically diverse, yellow and red shirts could spar with each other. But with Thai Twitter now more youthful, it seems to speak with a far more unified, anti-government voice than before. Now, to be a prominent salim can subject one to cancellation. 

I use the term ‘cancel culture’ hesitatingly both because of its negative connotations and a lack of agreement on what it means and even whether it exists. But for lack of a better term, I use it to broadly mean attempts to deplatform or to “ban” (the preferred term in Thai social media) figures and institutions with opposed ideological views. 

Firstly, what is salim, the current object of cancellation? This term’s meaning is ambiguous. Wikipedia defines it as “those who distrust democracy or support the role of the military in politics,” although this is certainly a definition that is subject to debate. It is towards these salim-affiliated figures that Thai cancel culture have recently been directed, and the examples are numerous. 

Salim celebrities were targeted, with an entire list of over 300 famous figures published on Twitter. Transgender TV personality Ma Ornapa the biggest scalp (whose ordeal has been covered by Pear Maneechote here.) When Sean Buranahiran, a life coach, said in a video a few months ago that he thought deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwan is a “cute person”, he was subjected to a massive online backlash. This is a phenomenon known in Thai as tour long: the arrival of bus-loads of critics!

Organizations and businesses have also faced the ire of social media. A rightwing media channel, Nation TV, found their sponsors subject to boycotts. The ‘No Salim Shopping List’ Twitter account began circulating lists of products purported to have salim connections and recommending non-salim alternatives. 

The extent to which cancel culture in Thailand has been effective is debatable. Some figures, like Ma, lost her positions on various TV shows, but it is unlikely that companies like Nation TV or its sponsors will have been considerably affected. But the long-lasting effect is beside the point. One goal has certainly been accomplished: everybody now knows what it means to be a salim and to risk the wrath of Thai Twitter. 

Armed with hashtags, teeming with tweets, an emerging Thai cancel culture seeks to deplatform anyone and anything that conflicts with the goals of the democracy movement. It is far from the cultural revolution that conservatives fear. Indeed, cancel culture is typically criticized as a threat to free speech. Yet this is wrong. Cancel culture in itself is a form of speech — fighting certain forms of speech with more speech. 

The power to de-platform rested (and in many ways continue to) with authorities like censors and editors who got to decide which figures and opinions were acceptable for public airing. Cancel culture merely devolves that power to the public. The decision over which writers to read, which celebrities to follow, which goods and services to purchase: all are solely within the right of the consumer. 

But even if cancel culture is not fundamentally flawed for reasons owing to a threat to free speech, we can still ask the question: is cancel culture effective? 

If the goal is to change peoples’ minds, the answer to this question is probably not. A UC Berkeley study found that — gasp! — listening to others is a fundamental part of persuading an opponent, which cancel culture certainly omits. 

As political scientist David Broockman noted, ““Twitter is obviously full of the notion that what we should do is condemn those who disagree with us. What we can now say, experimentally, (is that) the key to the success of these conversations is doing the exact opposite of that.”

Cancel culture likely only breeds greater indignation and anger, and indeed leaves one open to the inevitable counterpoint:  “what kind of democracy movement refuses to listen to dissenting voices?”

Secondly, who is considered fair game for cancellation? 

An interesting phenomenon emerged when Thai idols in Korea were targeted, not because they support the government, but because they had not spoken in support of the democracy movement. It appeared that not being a declared salim is not enough to escape condemnation. To be silent is to be ignorant, and to be ignorant is to be complicit: so the argument goes.

The family members of those who benefit from the current structure of power — Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s children, for instance, were also targets. “#SearchForPrayutsChildren has trended on Twitter,” a Move Forward MP tweeted. “It’s your childrens’ turn!” 

Both were considered beyond the pale for many netizens and felt needlessly divisive. Yet cancel culture will continue to target even those who should not be targeted because it is driven by a sense of mob justice rather than any rational criteria. As Yascha Mounk compellingly wrote, it is not just the guilty who suffer the repetitional and professional consequences of cancel culture. Trust the wisdom of the crowds, goes the phrase: but is the crowd always so wise?

The war on ignorance

While cancel culture is a dangerous element of this war on salim, there is also another less commonly discussed but also possibly insidious factor: the emergence of a new, unquestionable ideological standard.

Those who are salim, opponents charge, continue to lap up state propaganda. They refuse to open their eyes to the facts, nor to use logic. To not be salim, the argument therefore goes, requires a critical analysis of history and politics, and the reading of alternative sources of information. 

Thus, a corollary of this war on salim is a desire to not be salim. Indeed, two interesting terms have emerged in recent social media discourse. One is the Thai transliteration of the term ignorant. To be ignorant is to be oblivious and unconcerned to the current issues surrounding Thailand’s political culture; an inversion, for long-time observers of Thai politics, of the previous charge made by salim that red shirts are ignorant provincials. With the rise of a new generation, the tide has turned. 

What is desired is “enlightenment” from such ignorance: the most common term being berk net (to open ones’ eyes) or to educate yourself, a term recently popularized by the American left. This applies both to oneself and to seeking such education for others. As one netizen tweeted, “I’m so disappointed in my mother. She’s a true neo-salim. I give up. I really tried to educate her!” 

And thus people are now seeking to open their eyes. As BBC Thai reported, young Thais are now buying up numerous books on history and social issues at bookstores. This is a good thing and more understanding of history will always be good for society at large. 

But where do old orthodoxies end and new orthodoxies begin? What is education and what is ideological indoctrination? 

Take the example of the Royalist Marketplace group on Facebook, which was recently banned by the authorities and restarted by its founder, Pavin Chachavalpongpun. Inside the group, people often thank Pavin for opening their eyes and pointing them to the realities of Thailand. 

This group was recently criticized on Khaosod English by Pravit Rojanaphruk, who joined the group and whose post calling for speech based on facts was not approved. This led Pravit to argue that the group is not “a real marketplace of ideologies where people argue and communicate freely, it’s merely Pavin’s virtual ideological dominion.”

Pravit’s methodology was ultimately unsound — a sample size of one is insufficient to decide that Pavin refuses to uphold free speech. But it does speak to an important point that in this group, Pavin can act as the new gatekeeper of truth, his opinions accepted as facts, all posts requiring his approval for ideological conformity. Indeed, Pavin quickly accused Pravit of being ‘neo-salim’ and the group’s members called for him to be kicked out of the group. 

If to think critically about an emerging echo chamber is thoughtcrime, then is this better than rightwing insistence on conformity and devotion to the status quo? As a widely shared Facebook post of a group member said, “if thinking differently means I am a neo-salim, I guess I am one after all!” 

It is not simply within a closed group like the Royalist Marketplace that the dangers of unquestioned orthodoxies can be seen. On Twitter, many have taken to posting ‘berk net threads’: a series of Twitter posts purporting to reveal hitherto unknown truths about Thai society. 

The only problem? Some of them would fail basic fact checks. One thread, for example, attempted to expose the truth about Thai history so that “salim will update their understanding.” “We never had a war with Burma during the reign of King Rama I,” it began. Anyone with a general knowledge of early Rattanakosin history will know that this is a stunningly inaccurate claim, but the thread was retweeted over 30,000 times before some of the tweets in it were finally deleted.

As Sahil Handa wrote in the piece ‘Why I Refuse to “Educate Myself”’, “telling people that there is only one way to think is a sure-fire way to stop them from thinking at all…those who plaster the phrase educate yourself across their timelines make the pompous presumption that only they could possibly have the right opinions.” 

Of course, writing about this subjects one to a debate on priorities. Shouldn’t the focus right now be on regime intimidation and harassment, inevitably worse than any “cancel culture,” or the fact that true freedom of expression remains a goal out of reach in Thailand? Perhaps. But it is also important for democratic culture for such criticisms to be aired. 

The current trends in Thai society are encouraging in that we are moving towards a future that is more democratic, less tolerant of abuse of rights, more open in our pursuit of free inquiry and thinking. But doing so will be obstructed if people seek to “punish” others for refusing to hew to certain lines of thinking, or indeed to try to create and uphold new unquestionable orthodoxies to replace old ones. 

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